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Earth Stewardship

Earth Stewardship: Sustaining and enhancing Earth’s life-support systems

Earth stewardship involves shaping trajectories of social-ecological change at local-to-global scales to enhance ecosystem resilience and human well-being. Over the next decade or two, society has a window of opportunity to radically redefine our relationship with the planet to reduce risks of dangerous global changes that could otherwise seriously degrade Earth’s life-support systems.
Building on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which provide a vision for a sustainable and equitable future, and ESA’s Sustainable Biosphere Initiative, which defines a research agenda for a sustainable biosphere, earth stewardship uses sustainability science to shape pathways toward MDG goals during a time of rapid social-ecological change. Examples include (1) understanding the causes of polar ozone holes and reducing the production of ozone-destroying chemicals that caused them (global scale); (2) transformation of management of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to protect marine biodiversity and livelihoods (regional scale); and (3) assessment, mitigation, and adaptation of New York City to minimize impacts of climate change (local scale).

The Ecological Society of America (ESA), in partnership with other academic societies, agencies, and non-governmental groups, seeks to foster earth stewardship by (1) clarifying the science needs for understanding and shaping trajectories of change at local-to-global scales; (2) communicating the basis for earth stewardship to a broad range of audiences, including natural and social scientists, students, the general public, policy makers, and other practitioners; and (3) formulating pragmatic strategies that foster a more sustainable trajectory of global change by enhancing ecosystem resilience and human well-being.

  1. The science of earth stewardship requires interdisciplinary collaboration among many natural and social sciences, including climate, earth, and ocean science, environmental sciences, ecology, psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology. We need to work together to comprehend causal relationships among human behavior, institutional dynamics, and environmental, ecological, and earth-system stability and change.
  2. Earth stewardship requires a new ethic of environmental citizenship on the part of individuals, businesses, and governments. This must be based on a clear understanding of the consequences, tradeoffs, and opportunities associated with action choices that influence the trajectory of our planet. This in turn requires effective communication of issues and opportunities and improved alignment of incentives with those social norms that foster sustainable human behavior.
  3. We already know enough about the causes of recent global change to begin formulating paths towards more sustainable trajectories at local-to-global scales. Such strategies should enhance ecosystem resilience and human well-being but maintain flexibility to learn and adapt to the inevitable surprises.